By David Frum
Sunday, October 26, 2008
There are many ways to lose a presidential election. John McCain is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.
A year ago, the Arizona senator's team made a crucial strategic decision. McCain would run on his (impressive) personal biography. On policy, he'd hew mostly to conservative orthodoxy, with a few deviations -- most notably, his support for legalization for illegal immigrants. But this strategy wasn't yielding results in the general election. So in August, McCain tried a bold new gambit: He would reach out to independents and women with an exciting and unexpected vice presidential choice.
That didn't work out so well either. Gov. Sarah Palin connected with neither independents nor women. She did, however, ignite the Republican base, which has come to support her passionately. And so, in this last month, the McCain campaign has
Palinized itself to make the most of its last asset. To fire up the Republican base, the McCain team has hit at Barack Obama as an alien, a radical and a socialist.
Sure enough, the base has responded. After months and months of wan enthusiasm among Republicans, these last weeks have at last energized the core of the party. But there's a downside: The very same campaign strategy that has belatedly mobilized the Republican core has alienated and offended the great national middle, which was the only place where the 2008 election could have been won.
I could pile up the poll numbers here, but frankly . . . it's too depressing. You have to go back to the Watergate era to see numbers quite so horrible for the GOP.
McCain's awful campaign is having awful consequences down the ballot. I spoke a little while ago to a senior Republican House member. "There is not a safe Republican seat in the country," he warned. "I don't mean that we're going to lose all of them. But we could lose any of them."
In the Senate, things look, if possible, even worse.
The themes and messages that are galvanizing the crowds for Palin are bleeding Sens. John Sununu in New Hampshire, Gordon Smith in Oregon, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Susan Collins in Maine. The Palin approach might have been expected to work better in more traditionally conservative states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, but they have not worked well enough to compensate for the weak Republican economic message at a moment of global financial crisis. Result: the certain loss of John Warner's Senate seat in Virginia, the probable loss of Elizabeth Dole's in North Carolina, an unexpectedly tough fight for Saxby Chambliss's in Georgia -- and an apparent GOP surrender in Colorado, where it looks as if the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already pulled its ads from the air.
The fundraising challenge only makes things worse. The Republican senatorial and congressional committees have badly underperformed compared with their Democratic counterparts -- and the Republican National Committee, which has done well, is directing its money toward the presidential campaign, rather than to local races. (It was RNC funds, not McCain '08 money, that paid the now-famous $150,000 for Palin's campaign wardrobe, for example.) This is a huge mistake.
In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.
A beaten party needs a base from which to recover. In 1993, our Republican base was found in the states and the cities. We had the governorships of California, Michigan and Wisconsin in 1993, and Rudy Giuliani won the New York mayor's race later that year. The reform we delivered at the state and local levels contrasted acutely with the shambles of President Clinton's first two years -- and helped us win both houses of Congress in 1994.
I very much doubt that we will be able to show that same kind of local strength in 2009. The statehouses were the engine of our renewal in the 1990s; the Senate will have to play the same role after this defeat. That's especially true because of two unique dangers posed by the impending Democratic victory.
First, with the financial meltdown, the federal government is now acquiring a huge ownership stake in the nation's financial system. It will be immensely tempting to officeholders in Washington to use that stake for political ends -- to reward friends and punish enemies. One-party government, of course, will intensify those temptations. And as the federal government succumbs, officeholders will become more and more comfortable holding that stake. The current urgency to liquidate the government's position will subside. The United States needs Republicans and conservatives to monitor the way Democrats wield this extraordinary and dangerous new power -- and to pressure them to surrender it as rapidly as feasible.
Second, the political culture of the Democratic Party has changed over the past decade. There's a fierce new anger among many liberal Democrats, a more militant style and an angry intolerance of dissent and criticism. This is the culture of the left-wing blogosphere and MSNBC's evening line-up -- and soon, it will be the culture of important political institutions in Washington.
Unchecked, this angry new wing of the Democratic Party will seek to stifle opposition by changing the rules of the political game. Some will want to silence conservative talk radio by tightening regulation of the airwaves via the misleadingly named "fairness doctrine"; others may seek to police the activities of right-leaning think tanks by a stricter interpretation of what is tax-deductible and what is not.
The best bulwark for a nonpolitical finance system and a national culture of open debate will be the strongest possible Republican caucus in the Senate. And it is precisely that strength that is being cannibalized now by the flailing end of the McCain-Palin campaign.
What should Republicans be doing differently? Two things:
1. Every available dollar that can be shifted to a senatorial campaign must be shifted to a senatorial campaign. Right now, we are investing heavily in Pennsylvania in hopes of corralling those fabled "Hillary Democrats" for McCain. But McCain's hopes in Pennsylvania are delusive: The state went for Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and McCain lags Obama by a dozen points in recent polls. But even if we were somehow to take the state, that victory would not compensate for the likely loss of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and other states tipped to the Democrats by demographic changes and the mortgage crisis. The "win Pennsylvania and win the nation" strategy may have looked plausible in August and September, when McCain trailed Obama by just a few digits. Now it looks far-fetched.
But it is not far-fetched to hope that we can hold 45 or 46 of our current 49 Senate seats. In 1993, then-Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) stopped Hillary-care with only 43 seats. But if we are reduced to just 40 or 41 senators, as could easily happen, Republicans and conservatives would find themselves powerless to stop anything -- and more conservative Democrats would lose bargaining power with the Obama White House.
2. We need a message change that frankly acknowledges that the Democrats are probably going to win the White House -- and that warns of the dangers of one-party, left-wing government. There's a lot of poll evidence that voters prefer divided government. By some estimates, perhaps as many as 8 percent of voters consciously cast strategic votes in favor of division. These are the voters we need to be talking to now.
I'm not suggesting that the RNC throw up its hands. But down-ballot Republicans need to give up on the happy talk about how McCain has Obama just where he wants him, take off their game faces and say something like this:
"We're almost certainly looking at a Democratic White House. I can work with a Democratic president to help this state. But we need balance in Washington.
"The government now owns a big stake in the nation's banking system. Trillions of dollars are now under direct government control. It's not wise to put that money under one-party control. It's just too tempting. You need a second set of eyes on that cash. You need oversight and accountability. Otherwise, you're going to wake up two years from now and find out that a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House have been funneling a ton of that money to their friends and allies. It'll be a big scandal -- but it will be too late. The money will be gone. Divided government is the best precaution you can have."
It's the only argument we have left. And, as the old Washington saying goes, it has the additional merit of being true.
David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again." He served in 2001-02 as a speechwriter and special assistant to President Bush.